The Biden administration’s decision to admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, announced last week in the wake of the president’s European tour, is a huge step in the rebuilding of the U.S.’s once-vaunted refugee program after years in which the Trump administration all but neutralized it. However, the program must expand further if the U.S. plans to attempt to accommodate the steep increase in refugees that the coming year will likely bring.
At the urging of Stephen Miller, Trump’s mastermind of all things nasty when it came to making life miserable for immigrants, Donald Trump drastically reduced the numbers of refugees admitted yearly. By the time he signed off on his final presidential finding on the issue in the fall of 2020, he had set a refugee cap of 15,000 per year. It was a shockingly low number, barely one-sixth of the number admitted in Barack Obama’s final year in office, and a mere fraction of the 231,000 admitted in 1980; and — since refugee resettlement agencies receive much of their funding based on the numbers they are expected to resettle — it led to an evisceration of the U.S.’s resettlement programs.
The horrendous notion of massively constricting the numbers admitted was made even worse by a series of travel bans, largely targeting Muslim-majority countries, that made it nearly impossible for refugees from Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and several other countries experiencing widespread violence to enter the United States. In other words, the U.S. actively shut out refugees from places where the need was greatest.
Trump was determined to batten down the hatches against what he — and the far right in Europe — viewed as a tsunami of refuge seekers: In 2015-16, the period immediately before Trump’s election, more than 5 million asylum seekers and refugees from conflicts in the Middle East and in Africa headed to Europe to try to escape bloodshed and economic collapse. Trump slammed German Chancellor Angela Merkel for making a “very catastrophic mistake” in liberalizing Germany’s asylum policies, and said that more migrants were going to Europe as a result. And Trump determined that he wouldn’t allow the U.S. to go down the same road.
While he never quite got to the level of zero refugee admissions advocated by Stephen Miller, he did everything but that to make it clear that asylees and refugees were no longer welcome.
Within a couple years of Trump taking office, resettlement agencies such as the International Rescue Committee were hemorrhaging jobs and closing offices all around the country. In some states, including Florida — traditionally a hub for refugees and asylum seekers — the vast majority of refugee resettlement offices shut their doors.
Biden came into office promising to increase the refugee cap to 125,000. He then ran into a buzzsaw of criticism when, already attacked from the right for being “weak” on immigration because of the surging number of asylum seekers crossing the southern border, he appeared to walk back this pledge in early 2021. Faced with a revolt from within Democratic ranks at this campaign promise betrayal, he reversed course again, initially raising the cap to 62,500, and then, in fall 2021, finally increasing it again, to the long-promised 125,000.
Yet, with the Afghanistan and now Ukraine crises upending the lives of millions, even that aspirational number may prove inadequate to meet the vast refugee resettlement challenges of the moment.
After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the country’s rapid collapse back into brutal Taliban rule, the U.S. airlifted more than 130,000 people out of Afghanistan; by the late autumn, officials were estimating that about 50,000 had already arrived, or would soon do so, in the United States. Now, barely seven months later, Russia’s assault on Ukraine has unleashed the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, with nearly 4 million refugees having crossed over to other countries, and millions more internally displaced in Ukraine in barely a month of fighting.
That the U.S. is opening its doors to large numbers of refugees, some of whom will be granted permanent residency under the refugee resettlement program, many of whom will be given temporary status under the “humanitarian parole” program once they arrive, is a huge step in the right direction for U.S. refugee policy.
But, for many aid agency workers, the unthawing of the refugee resettlement program is coming at far too slow a pace. Most Afghans were admitted under the humanitarian parole program rather than the refugee resettlement program, meaning that they aren’t on a pathway to permanent residency, and it looks like most Ukrainians will be admitted this way as well. For while the refugee cap was, indeed, raised to 125,000, that’s more a long-term goal than a reflection of on-the-ground realities. Indeed, so far this year, according to State Department data, a mere sliver of that total number, only about 8,000 refugees, has actually been admitted. The processing of refugees continues to be bogged down by staffing shortages and a denuded infrastructure — the legacy of Trump’s four years of unrelenting hostility to refugee resettlement.
The Ukrainian catastrophe, coming so fast on the heels of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban, has shown just how vital — and also how fragile — refugee resettlement infrastructure is. U.S. efforts to isolate the Taliban, through freezing Afghanistan’s central bank assets, as Biden has done, have had ripple effects on civilians, further plunging the state into economic crisis and further fueling the exodus of desperate, hungry people.
In an era of massive population upheavals, due to wars, climate change, disease and the rise of brutal narco-states in parts of the world, wealthy democracies have a particular obligation to shoulder their share of the weight in resettling those displaced. President Biden is on the right track, both in raising the refugee cap and in announcing that large number of Ukrainians will be eligible for entry into the U.S. Now, he needs to find ways to increase the numbers admitted via the traditional refugee resettlement program route, and to rapidly channel funding into programs that have too often in recent years been forced to make destructive cuts.
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